February 2, 2001


Commentary

Clinton's No-Roads Rule Puts Common Sense to the Torch

By Russ Brooks

The movie, "Babes in Toyland," had the "Forest of No Return." Now the United States has forests of no entry, thanks to an appallingly misguided executive order by former President Clinton in the final weeks of his administration. To the applause of extremists in the environmental movement, the president decreed a ban on road construction on 60 million acres of federal land under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture.

Of the many controversial actions that Mr. Clinton took while moving vans were idling outside the White House, none may do more lasting damage than this anti-roads decree, which in essence hangs a"keep out" sign on a vast empire of America's publicly owned forests. None of Clinton's last-minute gambits is more deserving of review — and at least an attempt at reversal — by the new administration.

Supporters of a balanced environmentalism should be dismayed. Without the access that roads provide, comprehensive forest management is impossible. Forests that can't be accessed are subject to decay and more susceptible to disease and fire.

Consider last summer's infernos in the national forests. Homes were destroyed. Wildlife habitat was lost. Many species - some on government "endangered" lists - were decimated. And to a significant decree, the damage was so great because roads were too few. Firefighters often had to wait until the fires advanced to where access was available.

In maintaining healthy forests through monitoring and clearing of underbrush and deadwood, on-the-ground managers have the most informed perspectives and make the best decision-makers. Mr. Clinton ignored this common-sense truth. His decree offers a textbook example of top-down management, deaf to nuance and the different needs of different places. Instead of crafting a flexible policy, he fell back on the principle of one-size-fits-all, an approach that beguiles many in Washington despite its obvious shortcomings.

The road ban also is wrong because it places millions of acres off limits to Americans who don't have the time, inclination or physical capacity to venture in on foot or horseback. This is a curious approach for an administration that boasted of its commitment to the disabled and enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Millions of average citizens - both the physically mobile and the disabled - are, by the stroke of Mr. Clinton's pen, denied recreational use of vast federal acreage. Never mind that as taxpayers they are supposed to be the owners of this land.

There is also collateral damage: As tourism and recreation suffers, so will the economies of the surrounding communities.

To top things off, Mr. Clinton's action arguably was illegal. Under the National Forest Management Act, Congress has required the Forest Service to follow a procedural roadmap before adopting new plans for forest management. Yet these procedural requirements were ignored in the implementation of the Clinton road ban, even though it imposes substantial changes in forest plans.

The ban creates de facto wilderness areas, because forests without roads will exist as undeveloped, primitive regions. But Congress has said that it alone may designate land as wilderness. The president can recommend areas for designation, but lawmakers are supposed to have the final say.

Lastly, the ban violates one of the main pieces of legislation regarding forest management, the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act. This law directs the Forest Service to draw up plans on a forest-by-forest basis that foster outdoor recreation, range use, timber, watershed, and fish and wildlife. The Clinton road ban does not allow for these multiple uses and was not developed on a forest-by-forest basis.

Walling off 60 million acres of forest land flouts principles of good management and the requirements of the law. Last year, more than seven million acres of public land were scorched in the worst fire season in 90 years. How many acres must burn in the summers ahead to illuminate the absurdity in Mr. Clinton's rampage against road-building?

Russ Brooks is an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation, a public-interest law firm that litigates in behalf of a balanced approach to environmentalism and natural resource policy.

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